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Parenthood

My Lessons from Kehlani: Reimagining Motherhood, Family, and Breaking the Cycle

"Breaking rules that never worked for me, my family, or anyone I grew up with is not a failure, but a conscious choice."

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Written by Makena Froebel.

Art by Meagan Elemans.

For most of my life, the idea of motherhood was a fragile one. I knew it was something I wanted, but felt the type of motherhood I aspired to, the kind with a loving partner, financial stability, the “white picket fence,” was inaccessible. I had never seen it done up close. With no steps provided, I had little faith I would be able to achieve what I considered perfect; the wholeness of a financially secure, two parent home, let alone that I could be a mother without somehow traumatizing my kid. I grew up in South Minneapolis, a poor white girl with a single mama. For the most part it was awesome. But it was still engulfed in familial legacies of sexual violence, poverty, alcoholism, and toxic relationships. I was faced with the notorious expectation to “break the cycle.”

Yet when that idea only exists conceptually, it remains inaccessible.

 

The idea of breaking the cycle is a useful concept, signifying how intervention can shift patterns of generational trauma. Yet when that idea only exists conceptually, it remains inaccessible. As a child, I found myself constantly referencing the nuclear family and white picket fence as the ultimate goal and only solution to “the cycle.”

With adult perspective came the understanding that the type of family I thought of as perfect was not an inevitable, inherent normal, but an institution intentionally made to seem normal. The “nuclear family” is a structure used to disenfranchise and allocate power, brought to life through the colonial, patriarchal realities that dominate and shape American culture. Yet for so many of us growing up without it, it was the only image we could picture of success.

If you’re a millennial, post-millennial, queer, or an R&B lover, you know Kehlani.

 

For most of my life, the idea of what family looked like outside of this structure was narrow, limited, and frankly sad. From what I observed it involved obligation, or casual sex, or having a child to salvage a relationship. As a teenager, these beliefs shifted as I intentionally sought out alternative narratives about motherhood and family. One of these narratives came in the form of a tatted baddie from Oakland.

If you’re a millennial, post-millennial, queer, or an R&B lover, you know Kehlani. If you don’t fall into at least one of those categories, you probably still know her: a 25 year old vocalist known for her neo-soul pop fusions, an openly queer mixed-race (Black, white, Native American and Hispanic) woman, a director, producer, activist, and a new mom to a one-year-old. Kehlani announced her pregnancy in 2018, sharing that it was planned, and that the father of her child, who she is not married to nor currently in a relationship with, is also queer.

 

Kehlani announced her pregnancy in 2018, sharing that it was planned, and that the father of her child, who she is not married to nor currently in a relationship with, is also queer.

 

Throughout her pregnancy, Kehlani was very open about the importance of shared values, compatibility in co-parenting, and intentionality in choosing a partner. Her openness was both important and political. The autonomy to create queer families in safe and healthy environments exists in direct opposition to the heteropatriarchal forces that create and normalize the nuclear family. The ability to successfully co-parent outside of that structure shatters the inevitability of the structure and erases the perceived need for it in the first place. Creating a queer family in any capacity is radical. Doing so publicly, with an enormous platform, and under mounds of scrutiny is radical as fuck.

Kehlani rose to fame in the era of Soundcloud and Instagram, making her music and personality more accessible than most artists’ had ever been. This gave many fans the sense they grew up with her, some considering her more of a peer than a celebrity. The perception of closeness and familiarity that many people feel with Kehlani is what makes her choice to share her story so impactful.

Yet because of the cultural shock surrounding a woman in her early twenties planning a pregnancy outside of wedlock, much that she shared was misunderstood and misconstrued. She told Nylon, “I’ve gotten everything from ‘I thought she was a lesbian’ to ‘she was using queerness to promote her career’ to ‘her baby father is just a sperm donor.’” Despite all the controversy, Kehlani’s position in the world as a young, queer, family-planning mixed-race woman matters. Marian Wright Edelman said “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Representation allows us to imagine and visualize futures beyond what we thought was possible. This also applies to how we imagine and visualize our future families.

At 20 years old, I am just coming to realize that raising children without a cis-male romantic partner isn’t a punishment for not having one. When I renounce my responsibility to achieve the nuclear family as the only remedy to inherited trauma, my predetermined maternal timeline is left with a vast gap of potential.

In order to name what is missing, we have to envision what is possible.

 

José Estaban Muñoz describes queerness as “that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” In order to name what is missing, we have to envision what is possible. At the forefront of my own vision is the sacredness of motherhood, a future where motherhood is not extorted to serve patriarchal and colonial agendas. A future where queer mothers, low-income mothers, disabled mothers, trans mothers, single mothers, mothers of color, and all of their possible intersections are not only valued, but supported and protected. A future that can destabilize the necessity of marriage or romantic partnership in creating family, and emphasize collectivism, and emotional intimacy, and the possibility of platonic co-parenting.

The world is more complex than the nuclear family, and much more vast than the options we are conditioned to accept. Watching Kehlani create her family can empower us to believe that when it comes to family, we get to create what is possible. It affirmed for me that because I am a queer woman, any family I create will be a queer family. It put motherhood within reach in a way it never had been, and most importantly, it reminded me that breaking rules that never worked for me, my family, or anyone I grew up with is not a failure, but a conscious choice.

 


About the Author

Makena Froebel is a youth worker, writer, and organizer in Minneapolis, MN. She is a cofounder of People’s Protection Coalition, and is currently finishing her BA at Mills College.

 

Follow on IG: @makenamarae | Follow on Twitter: @


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